Body Cameras, Poorly Implemented, Failed

By Ben Wood, Published Apr 23, 2014, 12:00am EDT

A 2013 study found that body cameras led to a massive reduction in use of force incidents and officer complaints. However, a new Justice Department report shows that the benefits of using body cameras are not reaped when they are implemented improperly.

Despite all officers using body cameras, the Albuquerque police still killed 20 people in the past three years.

The Justice Department found that Albuquerque police officers were using deadly force too often and most of the shootings were unconstitutional. The report examines a number of deficiencies in APD that led to its problems, but in this note, we focus on their specific concerns about the use of body cameras.

Cameras Required

APD is one of few departments its size to mandate body cameras. In 2010 APD ordered $53,000 worth of camera equipment from LEA-AID. The cameras [link no longer available] back then cost about $125 each. For its investigation, the DOJ used body camera footage along with police reports, witness accounts and audio recordings to investigate use-of-force incidents and police involved shootings.

What the DOJ Found

In its 46-page report, the DOJ found mainly that the body camera program was deficient. For example, in numerous cases police failed to turn on their body cameras at all. The report says it is especially troubling when officers didn’t turn their cameras on when they were the ones making the initial contact with a subject.

From the report: 

“In an incident where officers fired Tasers at 'Mike' after stopping him for speeding, none of the officers present recorded the incident. Many of the reports include repetitive or standardized explanations for failing to record, such as ‘the immediacy of the situation’ and ‘rapid and unexpected event.’ These descriptions were provided where it was clear that the officer had a clear opportunity to record the event."

It also found that in most cases officers were not disciplined for incidents where they had not turned on. In one case, out of six officers on the scene, not one had their camera on.

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Undeveloped Camera Program

The report says the department threw together its body camera program without ensuring support from rank-and-file officers and did not have any oversight to make sure they were being used properly. The cameras appeared to be “directed only at placating public criticism.”

Cumbersome Cameras?

One excuse officers gave the DOJ is that the cameras were cumbersome and difficult to operate.

“However,” the DOJ says “we observed a number of officers successfully using the lapel cameras during our onsite tours.” 

APD has now replaced the cameras with a model it says is "less cumbersome" and easier to operate, but still haven’t been any better at recording incidents, the report says. As of last fall it was using Taser’s body cameras, a camera that weighs less than four ounces.

APD officers had never been formally trained on how to use the equipment, body camera policies and what situations they should use them in, according to the report.

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